Monthly Archives: November 2013

An Unquestioning Frame of Mind

Prichard makes a very interesting observation in the middle of one of his moral essays. “All questions,” he writes “arise from an essentially unquestioning frame of mind.” Something has to be taken for granted for a question to be asked in the first place. There needs to be a firm place to ask a question from.

What does this mean? Well, it means that every question makes unquestioned assumptions. Even the question “what unquestioned assumptions does this question make?” makes unquestioned assumptions: about the nature of questions and assumptions, about the perspective of the asker etc. And so on.

You might want to say that the interesting question-behind-the-question is the set of unquestioned assumptions. This would be the basis for a kind of Nietzschean analysis: what basic frame of mind would one need to have to ask the questions of, say, dualism? What frame of mind would you need to have to ask the questions that Nietzsche asks?

Can Testimony be Moral Knowledge?

I’ve been reading a paper by Karen Jones about testimony and moral knowledge. The question is basically this: can we ever learn moral facts from other people, or do we have to come up on them by ourselves? Intuitively – and most philosophers have agreed – the nature of moral knowledge means we have to learn it on our own. It’s like knowing how to ride a bicycle. You can’t just be told how, you have to try it out and develop the know-how yourself.

Imagine if you asked somebody why murder was wrong, and they responded by saying “oh, my parents told me”. Such an answer would provoke astonishment at the very least. What kind of psychopath hasn’t figured out for himself that murder is wrong? It is the kind of thing that grown adults expect other grown adults to understand, not just take on faith.

Jones disagrees with all this. She gives as her example sexist behaviour in a communal living arrangement: two women try to kick a man out for his perceived sexism. A second man asks for examples of the sexism and is told that it was just a way of looking at them, or an attitude during conversations. The second man can’t understand how this constitutes sexism. Should he accept that this kind of behaviour is wrong on faith, or should he stick to what he knows and demand that the first man stay in the house?

Jones thinks that it is possible to have expertise in particular areas of ethics. A woman who has suffered from sexism all her life, Jones says, is a better judge of what particular behaviours are sexist or not (and therefore what behaviours are wrong or right) than an average man. This can easily be generalized down all axes of oppression.

In certain contexts, according to Jones, we should simply trust the moral judgements of those with more experience than us. We do this all the time as children, Jones points out, as we learn about ethics. Remember the first example I mentioned? Perhaps what we should accept is that this learning process never really stops.

(By the way, it’s exam time over here. That’s why posts have been infrequent the past few weeks. Regular service should return shortly.)

Against Chesterton

I am a huge fan of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. It is therefore with a heavy heart that I tell you that Orthodoxy is crap: it is lazy philosophy, it is badly structured, it is at times rambling and at other times glib. Chesterton’s one saving grace is his extraordinarily pleasant style – like Wilde, he is an absolute joy to read – and while that style comes through in Orthodoxy, it jars heavily with the content.

Like his detective Gabriel Syme, Chesterton has an ingrained tendency to contrarianism. What makes him (and Syme) interesting is that his contrarianism is turned against radical ideas. He is a contrarian in the service of orthodoxy. So far, so good – but if only he wasn’t so obvious about it!

“I used to be a die-hard atheist,” Chesterton declares (my words, of course), “until I read several books making the case for atheism, which quite turned me to Christianity.” Such a construction occurs every few pages in Orthodoxy . Once would have been clever, or even twice, but after thirty repetitions of the same format I grew to loathe it. Chesterton’s crass attempt to pass off his contrarian temperament as – what? Some special marker of genius? – rings painfully false.

In about ten pages Chesterton zooms through the recent history of Western philosophy, declaring it the “suicide of thought”, “thought turned in upon itself”. Some choice quotes:

“[the philosophy of will] came, I suppose, through Nietzsche, who preached something that is called egoism. That, indeed, was simpleminded enough; for Nietzsche denied egoism simply by preaching it. To preach anything is to give it away.”

“Nietzsche always escaped a question by a physical metaphor, like a cheery minor poet. He said, “beyond good and evil,” because he had not the courage to say, “more good than good and evil,” or, “more evil than good and evil.” Had he faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it was nonsense. So, when he describes his hero, he does not dare to say, “the purer man,” or “the happier man,” or “the sadder man,” for all these are ideas; and ideas are alarming. He says “the upper man,” or “over man,” a physical metaphor from acrobats or alpine climbers. Nietzsche is truly a very timid thinker. He does not really know in the least what sort of man he wants evolution to produce. And if he does not know, certainly the ordinary evolutionists, who talk about things being “higher,” do not know either.”

Talk about a “cheery minor poet!” Has Chesterton ever read Nietzsche? The whole section reads like a criticism of Nietzsche based off the titles of his books. But let’s pass on to the apologetics part of Orthodoxy, where it becomes painfully obvious that Chesterton is out of his depth.

“…my belief that miracles have happened in human history is not a mystical belief at all; I believe in them upon human evidences as I do in the discovery of America. … The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain, popular course is to trust the peasant’s word about the ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant’s word about the landlord. Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both. Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost. If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism— the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence—it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed. But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred. All argument against these plain facts is always argument in a circle. If I say, “Mediaeval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles,” they answer, “But mediaevals were superstitious”; if I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles. If I say “a peasant saw a ghost,” I am told, “But peasants are so credulous.” If I ask, “Why credulous?” the only answer is—that they see ghosts. Iceland is impossible because only stupid sailors have seen it; and the sailors are only stupid because they say they have seen Iceland.”

Forget Nietzsche, has Chesterton never read David Hume? Here is Chesterton’s argument, restated in all its glory:

1)A peasant claims a miracle has occurred.
2) To deny that is to say that the peasant is untrustworthy or that miracles are a priori impossible.
3) But peasants are on the whole trustworthy.
4) If you claim miracles are a priori impossible you are arguing in a circle.
5) Therefore miracles!

This is truly awful philosophy. To set the discovery of America against the claim of ghosts as if they were somehow epistemologically equivalent – it defies refutation only because it is so difficult to see how somebody could come to believe such a thing. Does Chesterton accept every account of testimony, on the grounds that people are generally trustworthy? Does he read Herodotus and believe in giant ants? It is an epistemological argument that totally ignores non-testimonial evidence: both the evidence of our own lives, in which miracles do not happen, and the evidence (as Hume pointed out) of all the ‘miracles’ that have been debunked.

And so on. When it comes to apologetics, Chesterton is a kind of second-rate C.S.  Lewis, who is himself a very third-rate Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard in particular would never have made the mistake Chesterton makes all the way through Orthodoxy: that of confusing Christianity with Christendom.

Chesterton defends “traditional” Christianity against the corrupting influences of society. He argues that it – like Jesus – is fundamentally more radical than its radical detractors; more romantic than the romance of atheism. There’s a grain of truth here. Properly understood, Christianity is extraordinarily radical. “Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world,” Chesterton writes, in reference to the eye of the needle. But would it not be a deadly ultimatum to the Church as well? Would it not boil modern orthodoxy – which, of course, is fully entrenched in tradition and society – to rags?

When Kierkegaard railed against the world, he had the good sense to include tradition in his criticism. Almost by definition, tradition is lazy. It is the great mass of people, and the way is far too straight and narrow for such a herd. Kierkegaard devised what I still think of as an infallible test for anybody who wishes to write in support of Christianity. If the bulk of the people support you, he said, be sure that you are greatly in error. If you are by turns ignored and criticized, you are heading towards the right track. However, until they fall upon you and kill you, you can never be sure you’re getting it right. Orthodoxy, of course, was very well received.

Chesterton’s largest success is making orthodoxy and tradition seem romantic, but it’s also his largest betrayal. Orthodoxy gives lazy traditionalists the sense of being great radicals without ever having to do anything particularly radical. Chesterton reaps the benefits of a contrarian temperament while criticizing contrarian temperaments; he borrows from Oscar Wilde’s style while taking lazy swipes at Oscar Wilde. He comes across, I think, as pretty ungrateful.